Egypt struggles to stem organ trafficking

Sunday 19/02/2017
Egyptians wait outside the emergency ward of a hospital in southern Cairo. (AFP)

Cairo - There are concerns that Egypt will not be able to end rampant human or­gan trafficking, although it has cracked down on traf­ficking rings, closed medical insti­tutions that commit violations and tried to ensure transplants are per­formed within the law.

The efforts to stem organ traffick­ing may fail, however, because of the socio-economic conditions in Egypt as well its organ transplant law’s focus on prohibition rather than on creating a legal framework for such procedures and the pres­ence of gangs that thrive on buying organs from illegal African migrants.

“Over the past few years, the gap has virulently widened between commodity prices and real income for millions of people,” said Samia Khedr, a sociology professor at Ain Shams University. “Because of pov­erty, more people view their body organs as alternative sources of in­come.”

More than 27% of Egyptians were considered poor in 2016. Poverty is expected to rise as commodity price increases induced by the weaken­ing of the Egyptian pound continue while individual incomes are un­changed.

Alaa Nour, 40, said he sold a kid­ney two years ago because he need­ed money.

“I wanted to get married and start a new life,” said Nour, a sales­man from the southern province of Sohag. “A friend of mine convinced me to sell a kidney.”

Kidneys are among the most popular in the organ trafficking business here but organ selling comes at a huge cost for sellers.

Nour received $10,500, which he used to rent a flat in Cairo and buy a car he uses to work for an online transportation network. However, he could not leave his bed for six months after the operation.

Organ trafficking has thrived in Egypt for years. The country is among the top five in the world in illegal human organ trafficking, the World Health Organisation said.

In December, authorities ar­rested 41 people, including doc­tors, nurses, intermediaries and university professors, alleged to be members of a transnational organ trafficking ring in Cairo and Giza province.

The incident was an indication of the size of organ trafficking in Egypt, described by the British Journal of Criminology (BJC), an international review of crime and society, as one of the world’s “larg­est organ bazaars”.

People travel to Egypt to shop for body organs, knowing they can find whatever they want in a coun­try where thousands of poor citi­zens are ready to trade an organ for money.

Although official figures are dif­ficult to come by, Nihal Fahmy, an expert on human trafficking and a former consultant of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said as many as 5,000 cases of organ trafficking oc­cur in Egypt each year.

“This is not only about organ selling at the consent of parties concerned,” Fahmy said. “It is also about organs taken either by force or by deception.” She said in 2015, 33 cases of organ theft were report­ed in Egypt.

Most organ sales and thefts hap­pen among the hundreds of thou­sands of African refugees in Egypt. When they arrive, refugees are of­ten caught in Egypt’s poverty and joblessness.

“This is exactly when refugees start thinking of selling organs to get money to get by,” said Alaa Ghanem, head of the Right to Health Section at local non-governmental organisation Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “Some refugees are swindled out of their organs and not given money.”

Those refugees, Ghanem said, do not report such crimes for fear of ar­rest.

Some refugees try to cross into Israel through the vast deserts of the Sinai peninsula, where organ theft is becoming common. Health Minister Ahmed Emad has vowed to fight organ trafficking and several hospitals have been closed as part of that effort.

Ghanem said, however, that Egypt’s organ transplant law fails to address the root causes of traffick­ing while focusing on prohibition.

The Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues law, which was approved in 2010 and only started being enforced in 2015, prohibits the commercial exchange of organs. It says individuals implicated in or­gan sales are liable for trafficking of­fences.

Nonetheless, commercial trans­plants have persisted within Egypt, said BJC, adding that the law has had little effect on the organ trade.

Ghanem said the law does not ad­dress people’s need for organ trans­plants, only prohibiting the com­mercial use of organs.

“At one side you have those who need transplants and at the other there are those who are ready to exchange organs but the law stands in the middle, which is why organ sales go underground,” he said. “To solve this problem, we need to make the law more flexible to allow for organ sales.”